Gardening with Native Plants: Garden Care

Mesic prairie garden in June. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

Mesic prairie garden in June. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

With the spring plant sale “season” behind us and new native plants taking root in gardens, we turn to long-term care of these areas. Although it might be tempting to think that perennial native plants take care of themselves, managing a native garden presents some challenges. Garden care also provides learning and fun for the gardener.

If the garden is planted with plugs or small plants, using light mulch between the plants will hold soil moisture and reduce weed seed germination. Thicker mulch can be used in woodland plantings if it does not crowd the young plants. When normal rain patterns hold, we rarely water new plantings after the initial watering at installation. If there is a drought period or the site is well drained and in full sun, we water deeply once or twice as the plants establish. Heavier soils hold moisture longer, making watering less necessary. What is your garden soil like?

Newly planted native grasses in the new dry prairie garden (July, 2021).

We do not use fertilizer or pesticides in managing our native gardens. The plants do not benefit from fertilizer – and weeds do! We see little damage to native species from insects. If you have a small area, fencing or netting laid loosely over the plants can reduce damage from rabbits or deer. We only rarely use an herbicide spot treatment on difficult perennial weeds, timing treatment to avoid areas where we’ll be working and to prevent damaging desirable plants. Which insects are in your garden and where do they feed? Are those insects part of a food web?

Native plantings on a garden scale may be hand weeded. It’s best to minimize disturbance to the soil or plants, as this encourages weedy species. Weeding is relatively easy during the first season. In later seasons, you will have the chance to learn the seedlings of your garden plants (and some weeds). Many of our most stubborn weeds do not grow well in shade, so woodland gardens have fewer dandelions, mustards, and purslane. Our young gardens in full sun have plenty of these! Which weeds grow in different areas of your garden? How do you control them?

Weeds in Native Plant Garden
Weeds in a newly planted garden.

For prairie plantings started by seeding the site, the standard management is to keep it mowed to 8 to 12 inches the first two or three seasons. The fast-growing weeds will set fewer seeds while the slower growing prairie plants are extending their root systems more than growing taller. The following season, the plants are not mowed. In subsequent years, trimming or mowing can be used to remove old plant material during spring. If fire management is appropriate, safe, and permitted at your site, be sure to use the services of a qualified prescribed fire crew. For gardens where prescribed fire is inappropriate, unsafe, or impractical, dried material can be trimmed. Keep leaf litter and short stem stubble that can be used by small cavity-nesting bees.

These longest days of early summer are perfect for managing and enjoying your native garden!

—Susan Carpenter, native plant garden curator